204. Three Holes In My Floor: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
The Politics of Schooling
Each year the child is coming to belong more to the State and less and less to the parent — Ellwood P. Cubberley, Conceptions of Education (1909)
It was natural businessmen should devote themselves to something besides business; that they should seek to influence the enactment and administration of laws, national and international, and that they should try to controleducation. — Max Otto, Science and the Moral Life (1949)
Most people don 't know who controls American education because little attention has been given the question by either educators or the public. Also because the question is not easily or neatly answered — James D. Koerner, Who Controls American Education (1968)
In October 1990, three round holes the size of silver dollars appeared in the floor of my classroom at Booker T. Washington Junior High between West 107th and 108th streets in Spanish Harlem, about twelve blocks from Columbia Teachers College. My room was on the third floor and the holes went through to the second floor room beneath. In unguarded moments, those holes proved an irresistible lure to my students, who dropped spitballs, food, and ball bearings down on the heads of helpless children below without warning. The screams of outrage were appalling. So pragmatically, without thinking much about it, I closed off the holes with a large flat of plywood and dutifully sent a note to the school custodian asking for professional assistance.
The next day when I reported to work my makeshift closure was gone, the holes were open, and I found a warning against "unauthorized repairs" in my mailbox. That day three different teachers used the room with the holes. During each occupancy various objects plummeted through the floor to the consternation of occupants in the space below. In one particularly offensive assault, human waste was retrieved from the toilet, fashioned into a missile, and dropped on a shrieking victim. All the while, the attacking classroom exploded in cackles of laughter, I was later told.
On the third day of these aerial assaults, the building principal appeared at my door demanding the bombardment cease at once. I pointed out that I had been forbidden to close off the holes, that many other teachers used the room in my absence, that the school provided no sanctions for student aggressors, and that it was impossible to teach a class of thirty- five kids and still keep close watch on three well-dispersed holes in the floor. I offered to repair the holes again at my own expense, pointing out in a reasonable tone that this easy solution was still available and that, in my opinion, there were traces of insanity in allowing any protocol, however well meant, to delay solving the problem at once before another fecal bombardment was unleashed.
At that moment I had no idea that I was challenging an invisible legion of salarymen it had taken a century to evolve. I only wanted to spare myself those cries from below. My request was denied and I was reminded again not to take matters into my own hands. Five months later a repair was effected by a team of technicians. In the meantime, however, my classroom door lock had been broken and three panes of window glass facing Columbus Avenue shattered by vandals. The repair crew turned a deaf ear to what I felt was a pretty sensible request to do all the work at once, none of it complicated. The technicians were on a particular mission I was told. Only it had been duly authorized.
Commenting on the whole genus of such school turf wars, the New York Observer's Terry Golway said, "Critical decisions are made in a bureaucrat's office far from the site requiring repairs. One official's decision can be countermanded by another's, and layer upon layer of officialdom prolongs the process. A physical task that requires a couple of minutes work can take weeks, if not months, to snake through the bureaucracy. In the meantime the condition may worsen, causing inconvenience to children and teachers. In the end, no one is accountable." Thanks to Mr. Golway, I found out why the missile attack had been allowed to continue.
In my case, the problem lay in the journey of my original note to the custodian, where it was translated into form P.O. 18. P.O. 18 set out on a road which would terminate in an eventual repair but not before eight other stops were made along the way and 150 days had passed. A study of these eight stops will provide a scalpel to expose some of the gangrenous tissue of institutional schooling. Although this is New York City, something similar is found everywhere else the government school flag waves. I think we must finally grow up enough to realize that what follows is unavoidable, endemic to large systems.
Stop One: P.O. 18 was signed by the principal, who gave a copy to his secretary to file, returning the original to the custodian. This typically takes several days.
Stop Two: The custodian gave a copy of the form to his secretary to file, then sent the request on to a District Plant Manager (DPM), one of thirty-one in New York City.
Stop Three: In an office far removed from my perforated floor, the DPM assigned the repair a Priority Code. Three or four weeks had now passed from the minute a ball bearing bounced off Paul Colon's head and a turd splattered in gooey fragments on Rosie Santiago's desk.' A copy of P.O. 18 was given to the DPM's secretary to file, and the form went to the Resource Planning Manager (RPM), based in Long Island City.
Stop Four: The RPM collects ALL the work orders in the city, sorting them according to priority codes and available resources, and selects a Resource Planning Team (RPT). This team then enters the P.O. 18 in its own computer. A repair sequence is arrested at Stop Four for a period of weeks.
Stop Five: The P.O. 18 is relayed to the Integrated Purchasing and Inventory System (IPIS), which spits out a Work Order and sends it to the Supervising Supervisor. Three months have passed, and used toilet paper is raining down into the airless cell beneath John Gatto's English class.
Stop Six: The Supervising Supervisor has one responsibility, to supervise the Trade Supervisors and decide which one will at some time not fix but supervise the fixing of my floor. Such a decision requires DUE TIME before an order is issued.
Stop Seven: The Trade Supervisor has responsibility for selecting service people of flesh and blood to actually do the work. Eventually the Trade Supervisor does this, dispatching a Work Crew to perform the repair. Time elapsed (in this case): five months. Some repairs take ten years. Some forever. I was lucky.
Stop Eight: Armed with bags and utility belts, tradespeople enter the school to examine the problem. If it can be repaired with the tools they carry, fine; if not they must fill out a P.O. 17 to requisition the needed materials and a new and different sequence begins. It's all very logical. Each step is justified. If you think this can be reformed you are indeed ignorant. Fire all these people and unless you are willing to kill them, they will just have to be employed in some other fashion equally useless.
At the heart of the durability of mass schooling is a brilliantly designed power fragmentation system which distributes decision-making so widely among so many different warring interests that large-scale change is impossible to those without a codebook. Even when a favorable chance alteration occurs, it has a short life span, usually exactly as long as the originator of the happy change has political protection. When the first boom of enthusiasm wanes or protection erodes, the innovation follows soon after.
No visible level of the system, top, middle, or bottom, is allowed to institute any significant change without permission from many other layers. To secure this coalition of forces puts the supplicant in such a compromised position (and takes so long) that any possibility of very extensive alteration is foreclosed.
Structurally, control is divided among three categories of interdependent power: 1) government agencies, 2) the self-proclaimed knowledge industry, 3) various special interests, some permanent, some topical. Nominally children, teachers, and parents are included in this third group, but since all are kept virtually powerless, with rare exceptions they are looked upon only as nuisances to be gotten around. Parents are considered the enemy everywhere in the school establishment. An illustration of this awesome reality comes out of the catastrophe of New Math imposed on public schools during the 1960s and 1970s. In the training sessions, paid for by federal funds, school staff received explicit instructions to keep parents away.
In schoolteacher training classes for the New Math, prospective pedagogues were instructed to keep their hands off classroom instruction as much as possible. Student peer groups were to be considered by the teachers more important than parents in establishing motivation — more important than teachers, too. Kids were to learn "peer group control" of the operation by trial and error.
Nobody who understood the culture of kids in classrooms could have prescribed a more fatal medicine to law and order. But the experiment plunged recklessly ahead, this time on a national basis in the Vietnam-era United States. In the arithmetic of powerlessness that forced collectivism of this sort imposes, students, parents, and teachers are at the very bottom of the pecking order, but school administrators and local school boards are reduced by such politics to inconsequential mechanical functions, too.
1. The actual names have been changed.